Who is St. James? The Bible tells us that he was a fisherman-turned fisher of men – one of Jesus’ 12 disciples. He was a “son of Thunder” – a man of eager disposition. And perhaps most importantly, he was a man who responded to Jesus’ call without hesitation.
One of the great martyrs of the faith, St. James stands as a testament of evangelical fervor. As we honor his feast day this week, we invite you to discover five facts about him and learn where you can find him portrayed in the Basilica.
1. Before he worked with Jesus, James was a fisherman.
James and his brother John were the sons of Zebedee. Both were fishermen by trade, and partners with the disciples Andrew and Simon Peter. Jesus first met them when they were out fishing on the Sea of Galilee. After an entire night of fishing with no results, they were dubious when Jesus told them to lower their nets into the water once more. Yet they complied and were astonished to watch as they caught more fish than they could keep in their boat (Luke 5:1-11). After this miracle, Jesus asked them to follow him, saying he would make them fishers of men (Matthew 4:18-22). Immediately, they cast aside their nets to follow him, and did not look back.
2. He wasn’t the only apostle named James.
There was another disciple called James, the son of Alpaheus, who was also one of the twelve apostles. James the son of Zebedee is known as “James the Greater,” while James the son of Alpaheus is known as “James the Lesser” (Mark 15:40).
3. James is one of two disciples given a nickname by Jesus.
Although Jesus changed the name of Simon to Peter, James and John were the only disciples he gave nicknames. The fiery evangelical zeal and extreme reactions often displayed by these two inspired Jesus to – rather humorously – dub them “the Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17).
4. He was one of three disciples to witness the transfiguration.
James, along with John and Peter, comprised a special trio that was closest to Jesus among his disciples. This trio witnessed some of Jesus’ greatest miracles and stood by his side in his darkest hours. They were present when Jesus brought Jairus’ daughter back from the dead, and when He healed Peter’s mother-in-law. Perhaps their greatest honor was to be the only three disciples to witness the transfiguration (Matthew 17:1).
5. James was the first apostle to be martyred.
Tragically, James was beheaded by Herod Agrippa in 44 A.D. As the first apostle to be martyred, James stands as an example for the ages of devotion and passion for evangelism.
As Pope Benedict once shared,
“[W]e can learn much from St James: promptness in accepting the Lord’s call even when he asks us to leave the ‘boat’ of our human securities, enthusiasm in following him on the paths that he indicates to us over and above any deceptive presumption of our own, readiness to witness to him with courage, if necessary to the point of making the supreme sacrifice of life. Thus James the Greater stands before us as an eloquent example of generous adherence to Christ.”
You can find St. James the Apostle depicted in stained glass in the St. John the Evangelist Chapel, on the side of the Mary Memorial Altar in the Crypt Church, and in the southern entrance of the Basilica.
“Benedict XVI, General Audience, Wednesday, 21 June, 2006,” The Vatican
Butler’s Lives of Saints, ed. Bernard Bangley
The Way of Saints, by Tom Cowan